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Augustine's Confessions: A Foreword

Augustine's Confessions: A New Translation, by Peter Constantine
Foreword by Jack Miles
Liveright, January 23, 2018

News that a great classic like Augustine’s masterpiece, the Confessions, has found a brave new translator is momentous news indeed, for the masterworks of literature take our measure as much as we take theirs. I still remember the long walk I took on a damp November afternoon in 1962, having ditched class to finish War and Peace. My measure had been taken. I would never be quite the same. Or another timeless moment, on a sunny morning a year later, alone at my desk in the dormitory of a Jesuit seminary, when I finally finished reading the Aeneid in Latin. To have finished the great work in the original was something to be proud of, and yet I was emotionally defeated.

            The world’s most serious writers demand that we give to the reading as much as they gave in the process of writing, which is to say that these works demand a kind of surrender. Translation is that surrender in its most abject form. What Augustine demanded of Peter Constantine in this accomplished new translation was that he become a reader taken captive and, like a prisoner of war, turned into a writer in his captor’s service. Moreover, for the widely translated classics of Western literature, perhaps particularly the classics of Western spirituality, a prisoner like Constantine is never alone.

For these monumental works, an encounter with the original untouched by the influence of prior translations is scarcely to be had and not necessarily even to be desired. Sarah Ruden, a prolific translator of Greek and Latin classics (including her own translation of Augustine’s Confessions), remarked in a recent study of biblical translation: “I bring from the translation of pagan literary works a great reluctance to write what everybody else has written, commonsensical and well supported as it may be.”1 But Ruden, in her breezy and candid manner, heads the very paragraph where she makes this observation “Sheer Pigheaded Egotism,” and she may be right to do so.

Saying this, I invoke the memory of a giant among modern translators, my dear friend the late Michael Henry Heim.2 Mike—who translated Anton Chekhov, Günter Grass, and Milan Kundera, among others in a dozen modern languages—once commented to me that novelty at all cost was often the translator’s worst enemy. It was, if I recall his phrase correctly, “the curse of cleverness.” A modest man but with something like perfect emotional pitch on the page, Mike was determined above all not to show off. His translations were almost always the first ever to appear of the works he took in hand; yet when a great work is already in print in many translations, the temptation to difference, for difference’s own showy sake, must surely lurk around every corner.

Those who resist the temptation are those who are so utterly smitten by the original that they are compelled, almost despite themselves, to share as faithfully as they can what they believe they alone have grasped. There is an erotic dimension to this compulsion that puts me in mind of the poem “When You Are Old” by W. B. Yeats. A beautiful woman, addressed in the poem, has made many conquests in her day. The poet knows that he is only one among them. But he knows something about her, feels something for her, that he is certain has escaped her other lovers. And now that she is “old and gray and full of sleep and nodding by the fire,” he is bold to say that “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, / And loved the sorrows of your changing face.” That he loved her thus did not win her. His love was finally unrequited. In the way of a great beauty with her lovers, she may have known quite well that he loved the sorrows of her changing face, whether or not he ever said it. Yet even in the twilight of her life, even in this moment of poignant vindication for him, she remains invincibly beyond his reach.

            The masterworks are invincible in that way, and so the heroism of translation is a poignant heroism. A labor of love, we casually call it, knowing not just how little it usually pays but also how eclipsed the translator, the lover, must ever be by the beloved author, the belle dame sans merci. But the love within the labor has other deep costs as well, hidden costs, and we readers are fed by that love, learning most from repeated translations of the greatest works. The classics do not just reward but may even demand repeated reading. Have you had your measure taken once? Have it taken again, my friend. Something about you may have escaped it the first time. You may need to suffer a deeper test.

          As Peter Brown once memorably put it, “Augustine’s back is turned to us throughout the Confessions. His attention is elsewhere. He is speaking with his God.” Each of the thirteen component books would have taken approximately one hour in the kind of public recital that Augustine clearly anticipated, Brown estimates, and “those who first heard it would have found themselves listening to a stunning, yet disturbingly ‘modern’ piece of Latin verbal music." With this, Peter Constantine is in warm agreement:

Part of Augustine’s journey toward conversion was to reject what he saw as the sophisticated language of pride, and to embrace all that is simple and straightforward, the sermo humilis, humble speech, or the sermo piscatorius, the fisherman’s language of the Apostles, who spoke frank and forthright truths that all men and women could understand. The stylistic mastery of Confessions is that Augustine, the sophisticated rhetorician and Latin stylist, who had been the Rhetorician of Milan (the seat of the Roman emperor), distilled his language into a beautiful and mellifluous simplicity.

Unique among contemporary translations of the Confessions into English, Constantine’s is the work of a translator whose mother tongue is Greek. His first encounter with the work came through a translation into katharevousa, the refined neoclassical Greek first fostered by nineteenth-century Greek nationalists. This was a latter-day Greek equivalent of the Latin sermo sublimis that Augustine had quite deliberately left behind. Only later did Constantine read the work for a second time in Demotic Greek—the everyday sermo humilis that has become the official language of the Hellenic Republic. The reading experience of the translator, to this extent, recapitulated the writing experience of the author.

My own first encounter with that simplicity came in a curiously out-of-sequence way. First as a high school boy, and then as a Jesuit seminarian, I had studied Latin classics in what was at the time the established order: Caesar’s Gallic Wars; Cicero’s Catiline Oration and other orations and essays; then Virgil’s Aeneid and, for a select few, the Odes of Horace. Toward the end of that parade, however, I turned against Latin and hatched (very briefly) the truly perverse scheme of so mastering the language that I could irrefutably demonstrate that there was no reason any longer to study it. On the inside cover of my secondhand Latin grammar, someone had written what I took to be an immemorial lament:

Latin is a dead language.

It’s dead as it can be.

It killed all the Romans,

And now it’s killing me.

I fantasized a British (or maybe Irish) schoolboy as the anonymous author of that jingle. At seventeen, I embraced him as my brother.

            Alas, in a way that perhaps Augustine might appreciate, God had other plans for me. Four years later, in 1964, I was seated as a seminarian in a philosophy classroom at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where lectures and textbooks were all in Latin, and all examinations were oral examinations, also in Latin. This was Latin immersion, to be sure, but only to a point. After school, I was immersed not in Latin but in Italian, intoxicated to be talking and hearing at last a living language with living and wonderfully lively Italian friends. During my summers, I went to Germany and grew at least as excited about that language and about the several cultures of the German Sprachgebiet. It was only after all that—that is, after three full years as an American abroad in Europe and Israel—that I happened by chance upon an edition of the Confessions in Latin. Somewhat to my surprise, I found that I could make pretty good sight-reading sense of it, but—a much stronger surprise—I had the sudden and simultaneous sense that this wasn’t classical literature at all. This . . . this was European!”

            That was how I experienced what Peter Brown calls, in quotes, the “modern” quality of Augustine’s Latin, the quality that Peter Constantine characterizes as Augustine’s “mellifluous simplicity.” But is it fair to declare Augustine’s Latin European? I think one could more easily argue that Western Europe’s languages are Augustinian. More concretely, one could argue that they are all marked by what happened to the Latin language in Augustine’s hands. The case for this bold claim would rest on Augustine’s vast influence as the mediator to Western Europe of the classical rhetorical tradition in an inextricable intellectual tangle with Christian ideas and, above all, in a stylistic tangle with the artful artlessness of biblical prose and poetry.

The emotional range of the Greco-Roman classics is enormous, and the meditational mode is certainly represented. One thinks, for example, of Marcus Aurelius in De rerum natura, and Constantine mentions Marcus Aurelius in his introduction. But does any classical poem, including that one, confide in the way that some of the Psalms do, and that Paul then does, and that Augustine—turning, as it were, a folk tune into a symphony—does at length in the Confessions? I doubt it, and it is by such elusive and aesthetic means as these that the mentality of one culture evolves into the mentality of another or that the encounter of two cultures gives birth to a third.

            In watching a great actor onstage, one can be impressed with his technique, his complete mastery of his part, and his intelligent awareness of how his part, whatever its size, functions within the play. Yet the most powerful of dramatic moments can sometimes come when normal control fails and the part seems to possess the actor. This is the dramatic equivalent of the literary surrender that I speak of above. There are times when Augustine, as the author of the Confessions, seems all too self-consciously in control of his performance, but there are peak moments when the role of penitent sinner turned ecstatic worshipper ceases to be a role and becomes simply the naked truth of the man himself. In such moments, the involuntary, almost helpless sincerity of the author requires a difficult answering sincerity in the translator.

The deep strength of Peter Constantine’s translation is that he has matched Augustine’s sincerity with his own. Listening as closely as I can in this translation for the false note, the faked note, the show-off note, the note of preening insincerity or accursed cleverness, I hear none.


1 Sarah Ruden, The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible (New York: Pantheon Books, 2017), 122.

2 Cf. The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation (Rochester, NY: Open Letter/University of Rochester Press, 2014). The book, edited jointly by several friends of Heim’s after his death, contains essays on the subject of translation as well as appreciations of and work by Heim himself.

3 Augustine, Confessions, translated by F.J. Sheed; introduction by Peter Brown; edited, with notes, by Michael P. Foley; second edition (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2006), pp. xvii-xviii.